Main Meals

Lasagne

It may not be considered the most exciting meal these days, but lasagne will forever be a dish close to my heart.

Believe it or not I was a painfully fussy eater when I was a child and lasagne was one of the few dishes I really enjoyed. Fuelled by an unhealthy affinity with Garfield the Cat, my youthful appetite for lasagne was as insatiable as  that of the grumpy ginger feline himself! Whenever my mother asked what I wanted to have for a special occasion the answer was always the same: lasagne, lasagne, lasagne!

LasagneIn a world obsessed with carb-cutting, the humble lasagne has become somewhat of a relic of family style cooking – a dish that your good old mum would make because she doesn’t know any better or hasn’t bought a new cookbook since 1985. A crying shame really, as this oven-baked Italian classic is a victim of its own popularity. Much like the equally misunderstood and shamelessly corrupted Spaghetti Bolognese, lasagne is in fact a dish of noble proportion and should be appreciated as such. Made well and with love, lasagne is truly a paragon of pasta perfection.

Rich and layered, lasagne is to food what a  hot water bottle is to a winter’s bed: the ultimate comfort. To build the perfect lasagne each layer must be generous and distinct, a balanced ménage à trois of punchy ragu (meat sauce), cheesy béchamel sauce and silky pasta.

Lasagne also needs time to rest before serving. Allowing it to cool down will afford each layer the opportunity to solidify its presence in the overall dish and not be overwhelmed by the molten maelstrom of flavour that is a lasagne immediately after it’s taken out of the oven. At least half an hour is needed for everything to cool down although a couple of hours would be better, but overnight in the fridge would be ideal.

Lasagne reheats wonderfully in the microwave in just a few minutes or in an oven (covered in foil) at 180°C for about 15 minutes.

For more Italian recipes from The Muddled Pantry, please click here

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Classic Hamburger

Burgers are, without doubt, this year’s sushi.

Yes it is official, the Foodie Overlords have decreed that burgers are just too cool for school and I am, quite literately, lovin’ it. I’m not sure what the exact reasons are for this up-swing in the humble burger’s popularity, but it is way overdue and long may it continue! So to whomever designated 2015 the Year of the Burger, I just want to say a hearty thank you!

So okay yes I am supposedly avoiding carbs these days, but burgers have always been my Achilles Heel and, as such, one of my favourite cheat-meals…but I know I’m not alone. In terms of Western food, there is nothing quite as satisfying or as iconic as a good burger. Their popularity is almost universal and enduring, in spite of fast-food’s attempts at turning us against them (no, I don’t consider a Big Mac a real burger – I scarcely consider it food)! Classic HamburgerBut what is it about burgers that keep us coming back for more? Is it their irrepressible retro-Americana charm? Maybe its the sheer “junk-food” decadence that burgers came to represent in the 90/00’s; a symptom, if you will, of the “mum says don’t eat it, so I want it more” syndrome? I just don’t know, but I will tell you this: a good burger is damn hard to beat!

Of course, with renewed popularity comes the inevitable desire for ‘reinvention’. It happens to even the noblest of foods: sushi got cream-cheesed & biltonged, smoothies got iced & goji-berried, coffee got lost in soya & hazelnut and now, burgers have become classy.

Now don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a classy burger; I even have a few concoctions of my own that I wish to share (wait till you try my miso butter, goats cheese & mushroom burger!).  With hordes of hip burgers-bars popping up all over the place, the market is awash with every kind of burger you can imagine. These days you can’t seem to get away from the promise of wagyu patties, truffled mayo and unmani ketchup – all utterly delicious, but all utterly superfluous to the crafting of the perfect burger. Seriously, enough already. The Fonz lived without chipotle salsa and trice-cooked fries and so will you! So whilst I appreciate the ingenuity of some of the more outlandish toppings offered, burgers are at heart the epitome of unpretentious eating and we must never lose sight of that.

Okay, so what does maketh the perfect hamburger then?

For me it is all about doing the basics well. Sure you can add cheese, gherkins, bacon into the mix, but all that extra stuff comes down to preference and taste. The essential building blocks of a true hamburger are simply these:  a homemade flame-grilled patty slavered in a decent basting sauce, a quality sesame bun which has been lightly toasted and the Holy Trinity of Burger Toppings being ice-berg lettuce, sliced tomato and onions.

Finished and klaar.

Click here for the recipe

Sate Ayam (Chicken Satay)

Sate Ayam (Chicken Satay)A childhood favourite of mine, sate is a true South East Asian classic.

Perhaps the ultimate skewered meat treat, sate is often considered more of a snack than an actual meal in itself and is typically ordered as a side dish or “starter”. Sate is also a popular option for young children as the meat is sweet and irresistibly flavoured, without being too spicy – great for fussy eaters!

Whilst beef and chicken are by far the most popular varieties of sate, the use of mutton and goat meat is not entirely uncommon. Personally, I’ve always preferred chicken sate over beef, as it seems to fare better over the hot coals and the inherent blandness of chicken seems to marry better with the flavours of the marinade. Also at least you know what you are getting with chicken (for the most part anyway). The daging (i.e. meat) version of sate is, by definition, a tad ambiguous and there have just been too many scandals where meat of a dubious nature has been passed off as beef.  Trust me, stick to the chicken lest you are partial to the odd bit of horse meat.

Sate Ayam (Chicken Satay)At any rate, it turns out that making a decent stick of chicken sate at home is actually pretty damn hard! It isn’t that the recipe itself is particularly complicated or that the main ingredients are impossible to source, the problem lies in recreating the way the sate is actually cooked. Expertly grilled over searing hot coals on a specially designed oblong barbecue and basted with a brush made of lemongrass, the real deal is nothing short of chargrilled-perfection!

After many attempts at recreating the optimal cooking environment for sate, I must confess that I still haven’t got it quite right. Alas sometimes you just need to say “c‘est la vie” and except that perfection isn’t always an option when recreating your favourite dishes. Luckily, however, sate doesn’t have to be perfect to still be pretty damn amazing and totally worth making!

So here are a few tips on making the near-perfect sate:

Firstly, soak your bamboo sticks overnight otherwise they will burn and break off. Make sure the sticks are completely submerged in the water, I use a tall bottle with a stopper to soak mine in.

Secondly, marinate your meat overnight in the fridge – your sate will be all the better for your patience.

Finally, make a basting brush out of the outer skins of the lemongrass; it may seem a tad over-involved to go to such extremes, but it’s worth it.  To make the brush, simply shred the reserved lemongrass lengthwise and then tie at the top with some kitchen string. Give the “brush” a very light bash with a meat mallet just before using.

Click here for the recipe

Kimchijjigae 김치찌개 (Pork & Kimchi Stew)

Congratulations, so you’ve finally realised that you simply can’t live without kimchi. Fantastic! As my partner would say, you are now officially a bona fide “stinky kimchi-freak” just like me. Charming I know, but he’s most definitely not a fellow fan. Nevertheless, welcome to the Club.

So now that you’ve confessed your insatiable appetite for kimchi, you may be asking yourself the inevitable question, “What exactly does one do with a massive vat of homemade fermented cabbage?”

Kimchijjigae 김치찌개 (Pork & Kimchi Stew)Whilst delicious just eaten as a side dish (known as banchan in Korea), the truth is that plain mak kimchi can get a little monotonous after a while. Thankfully, however, there’s no shortage of ways in which to enjoy your kimchi-fix. Such is their love of kimchi, the Koreans seem to have based much of their cuisine around its consumption, resulting in a seemingly endless array of dishes that can be made using this spicy Korean staple. Kimchi fried rice, kimchi pancakeskimchi risotto and even kimchi ice cream, there are no limits to the wacky ways in which kimchi can be eaten. However, one of the more traditional dishes remains one of the most popular – Pork & Kimchi Stew.

Known in Korea as kimchijjigae 김치찌개, the first time I tried the dish was as part of a Korean BBQ at Galbi in Cape Town, where it was served at the end of the meal with a bowl of rice. To be honest it was the low-point of an otherwise great meal (their sweet potato fries are to die for!), as it was a tad insipid and tasted more like watered down tomato soup than the amazing spicy stew I had been eagerly anticipating. It was not a good start to my budding love affair with kimchijjigae, but considering the restaurant’s actual kimchi was also rather tasteless, it shouldn’t have been a complete surprise that their kimchi stew would also be somewhat lacklustre. Disappointed, but undeterred, I did what I typically do when I feel let down by a dish – I set about making it myself

Mercifully, kimchijjigae is actually very easy to make and only requires a few of the more basic Korean pantry staples. It was only after tasting my first attempt at making it, that I appreciated what a great dish this should be and why it warrants its enduring popularity. Simple and relatively economical to make, kimchijjigae is both deeply satisfying and is the perfect way to showcase kimchi’s hidden depths. Much like kimchi risotto, this stew actually serves to bring out kimchi’s complexity of flavour, something that is typically masked by the spiciness of the kimchi.

Any dish that makes kimchi taste even better is, in my mind, a dish worth making…but then again, if I’m to be perfectly honest, you already had me at kimchi. 

For more Korean recipes from The Muddled Pantry, please click here. For tips on stocking a Korean Pantry, please click here

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Aloo Mutter (Peas & Potato Curry)

I’m not sure many people can say this, but I owe my sanity to aloo mutter…or at least my sanity in India anyway.

Travel has always been a huge part of our lives. From Tokyo to Kathmandu, down to Ushuaia and all the way back up to Kirkenes, we are blessed to have trampled the globe together. For me our travels have always been synonymous with seeking out new food experiences. For my flavourphobic partner, however, the mere notion of culinary-tourism is unpalatable. In spite of being the most well travelled person I’ve ever met, my partner holds scant regard for sampling foreign flavours in foreign climes. This is, after all, a man who ate nowt but Big Macs in Beijing, Whoopers in Bergen, doner kebabs in Florence…and then there was India.

Ah, dear Mother India!

Aloo Mutter (Potato & Pea Curry)A land defined by fierce fragrances, earthy hygiene and spicy flavours; India is a culinary destination that should strike fear in the hearts of even the bravest of world travelers, let alone those of limited culinary bravado i.e. ‘you know who’…or so you would think. Little did I know that, culinarily speaking, the sub-continent would prove to be one place in the world the Flavourphobe would have no problem finding something to eat – all thanks to aloo mutter! Who knew a man could almost exclusively live on peas and potatoes for a month, but that he did. With the exception of the occasional aloo gobi, he had it in the South, he had it in the North, he even had it somewhere in the middle and he loved it every single time…but not as much as I did! No one was happier than I when we saw aloo mutter on the evening’s menu; not because I wanted to eat it myself, but rather because it meant we could actually enjoy a meal together whilst on holiday! For the first time on our travels I had been spared our usual dinner-time routine of depositing him at the nearest KFC whilst I sampled the local delights on my lonesome. At last, we could eat at the same restaurant every day. What travel bliss! Indeed what a privilege!

So did aloo mutter prove to be that watershed moment when he would finally open his taste buds to the favours of the world? Hah, don’t make me laugh. With the exception of Japanese Curry, his culinary ‘awakening’ was as short-lived as our time in India. Soon enough we were back to traveling together, but eating apart. Alas, the dream couldn’t last forever and the aloo mutter bubble had to burst at some stage. We will, however, always have dear Mother India and the days she granted us the simple pleasure of  enjoying a meal, together.

Oh…did I forget to mention that aloo mutter is also incredibly delicious and cheap to make? Don’t just take my partner’s word for it, it really is possibly the best way to jazz up a couple of potatoes and those long-forgotten peas at the back of the freezer! Aloo mutter is definitely a worthy addition to any Indian meal.

For more of my top picks for an Indian feast, please click here, or for more great Indian recipes from The Muddled Pantry, please click here

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Thai Caramel Pork (Muu Waan)

Caramel is something that most of us associate almost entirely with Western cuisine, more specifically with Western-style desserts, but the use of caramel is, in fact, common in Asian cooking, especially in those countries that formed part of the colonial Indochina region.

In Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and, to a lesser degree Thailand, the use of caramel sauce is fairly routine and is considered a pantry staple, added to a wide range of dishes. The caramel sauce enriches the colour of the dish and imparts a sweet, smoky undertone. The Vietnamese, in particular, are especially fond of this ingredient. Known as Nước Màu, some of Vietnam’s most popular dishes rely heavily on its inclusion – Bún Chả and Thịt Kho Tàu being prime examples.

Thai Caramel Pork (Muu Waan)Whilst its use is not as prevalent in Thailand, cooking with caramel is not uncommon in Thai cuisine, although typically the flavour is achieved through the caramelisation of palm sugar and not the use of a ready-made caramel sauce. Sweet meat dishes in Thai cuisine are considered the perfect foil to sharper, acidic flavours, as well as creamy coconut dishes – the classic pairing of Shredded Candied Pork, Coconut Rice & Green Papaya Salad (Som Tam) being a case in point. This heavenly balance of flavours is not, however, solely restricted to this classic combination and is something that should be considered when planning any Thai meal. This is where Thai Caramel Pork (Muu Waan) comes into its own.

Similar in flavour to Shredded Candied Pork, Thai Caramel Pork is in fact far quicker to make and is less labour intensive and can be used as an alternative to the shredded variety in the classic combination mentioned previously. Personally I like to pair Caramel Pork with a coconut-based dish such as a Mussaman or a Green curry and a zingy yam (Thai Salad). I am especially fond of serving it with either a simple Fried Egg Salad (Yam Khai Dao) or Waterfall Beef Salad (Neua Naam Tok).

Regardless of what you decide to serve it with, provided you cover the trifecta of Thai flavours (sweet, sour and rich), you’ll be onto an absolute dinner-winner!

For more delicious Thai recipes please click here, or if you need tips on stocking your Thai Pantry please click here.

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Tuna & Courgette Sweet Potato Pocket

Tuna & Courgette Sweet Potato PocketI have never been much of a lunch person, preferring to rather invest my finite enthusiasm for cooking towards crafting a decent dinner.

I suspect that my mid-day apathy is rooted in my years growing up in Malaysia, where lunch was pretty much a no-brainer as it invariably meant one thing: noodles! Beef Hor Fun, wonton mee or Char Kway Teow – a noodle obsession is easy to feed when you live in what is arguably the noodle capital of the world! Alas such lunchtime bliss is now 9000km away and my choices are somewhat less appealing these days. Here in South Africa a ‘sarmie’, pie or a plate of chips are typical lunchtime fare and needless to say, I would rather do without. Nevertheless, a man has still gotta eat so I found myself falling back on old Malaysian habits and having noodles for lunch, albeit nowadays I’ve been reduced to a bowl of a jazzed-up noodles of the 2-minute variety. More recently, however, I have been trying to cut down on complex carbs so even my trusty instant noodle-lunches have been a rarity of late, which is all well and fine, but this has led me back to my initial lunchtime conundrum: what the hell’s for lunch?

For the most part this has meant soup and these days my bowl of choice is minestrone. Since my carb-cutting I’ve eaten a lot of minestrone but as delicious as it is, there is only so much soup a man can sup! Desperate to move back to solid foods I searched high and low looking for a meal that was fast, tasty, filling and, above all, didn’t sabotage my diet. I had almost given up and was about to resign myself to my soupy fate until culinary salvation arrived in the form of a Men’s Health magazine (of all things).

Okay so the featured recipe was pretty basic, but it was ripe with potential. It was exactly what I had been looking for, it was just a tad dull (after all, it was inspired by a Men’s Health recipe), but with a just a few tweaks I knew I was on to a winner! Firstly, I added some coarsely grated baby marrow (courgettes) into the mix, then some finely diced fresh red chilli and red onion and everything was topped with a dollop of plain fat-free yogurt and a crack of pepper: the perfect low carb/high protein lunch in under 5 minutes! With my preferred noodle-lunch still 9000kms away, this sounds like a near-perfect lunch to me.

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Sticky Beef Short Ribs

If I had to pick a favourite cut of beef, it would simply have to be short ribs; cheap, tasty and meltingly tender, I just can’t get enough of them.

Sticky Beef Short RibsThe perfect marriage between meat, bone and fat, short rib is my go-to cut of beef for whenever I am doing a long braise, as it is perfectly suited to being cooked for extended periods. Whether it’s for a spicy Mussaman Curry, a comforting bowl of Beef Phở or a simple cider braise beef, short ribs works a treat with just about any style of cooking, so long as it is afforded enough time to work its magic.

Which brings me to this delectable dish! Robustly flavoured and so tender you can literally suck the meat off the bone, Sticky Beef Short Ribs is a great way to prepare this special cut. Although the dish has all the hallmarks of a classic Chinese style braise, the addition of Korean Soybean Paste (doenjang) does muddle the waters somewhat, resulting in a dish that is equally suited to both a Chinese or Korean spread. If you can’t source any doenjang, regular Chinese Bean Sauce would suffice, or, if you wanted to add a Japanese twist to the dish, you can always try some miso. Personally, if you can, I would stick with the doenjang as it adds a distinctly earthy depth to the dish that neither miso nor Chinese Bean Sauce does.  

Note: As with most other Asian braises, this dish is always best if made the day before, but is still delicious if eaten immediately. If you are making the dish in advance then it is best not to reduce the sauce immediately, but rather wait until you are going to eat it to do so.

Click here for the recipe

Idaho Stew (Beef Coffee Stew)

It was only when I finally moved to Cape Town to be with my partner that I realised I had, in fact, moved in with my own private flavourphobe.

From the very first meal I made us, it was abundantly clear that any thoughts I may have been harbouring about bringing about instant flavour-reform to his palette were a complete waste of time. His tastes preferences were set and I would simply have come to terms with the fact that there wasn’t going to be a belacan-epiphany or a glorious moment of garlic-redemption on the immediate horizon. Regardless how I felt about it, I had made my proverbial table so, for now at least, I was just going to have to eat at it.

Beef Coffee StewFor the first few months I dutifully made the plain dishes he enjoyed, but like all good spouses I was really doing what we do best – biding time. An errant garlic clove here, an extra splash of Worcestershire sauce there, little by little I tested the waters and after a while I began to introduce new dishes for his consideration. Some of these offerings were more successful than others, some were downright disasters, although with hindsight the roasted lamb with anchovies was particularly ill considered!

And then I discovered the recipe for this incredible stew.

On paper Idaho Stew fit the bill perfectly; it was a simple, old school beef braise with one small twist – it had coffee in it! It may seem minor now, but please remember that, culinarily speaking, South Africa was a very different place back in 2000. Back then the mere notion of sushi was downright provocative and the thought of cooking a savoury dish with coffee was considered, at best, daring to most South Africans (let alone my dearest flavourphobe)! So yes, back then this humble stew was a risk, but I had to try it, lest I be condemned to making sausage, peas and mash for the rest of my life.

So one night I bit the bullet and dished up my ‘daring’ new stew for dinner. With baited breath I watched as he eyed my latest offering with understandable suspicion. “What is it?”, he asked. “Oh, nothing weird, just a stew” I said, in what I hoped was my most casual voice. “Hmm, okay”, came the reply. Clearly he wasn’t convinced, perhaps the lingering trauma of that damn anchovy lamb was playing on his mind. In spite of his obvious suspicions he took a bite, albeit tentitively and after a moment of furrowed consideration he took another, then another – the stew was hit! It was only once his plate was cleared that I dared divulge the contentious ingredient.

“Coffee? Really? You can’t taste it”.

Wow, he was taking this surprisingly well.

“You can definitely make this again”.

Oh, sweet success!

“But next time may I have it with rice and not mash?”.

Sigh. Okay, so you’re still a freak, but I’ll take the win.

To this day Idaho Stew remains a firm favourite in his limited pantheon of acceptable meals and I still make it often, although he normally refers to it as “his coffee stew” suggesting a secret revelry in the kudos of his expanded palette. These days I usually have a couple of handy portions of this stew in the back of the freezer which I whip out for my partner when we have guests and the menu isn’t to his taste. Unfortunately, this seems to have given his much loved “coffee stew” a bad rep as one of “Brian’s meals”, which is, frankly, simply a byword for dull.

Nothing could be further from the truth! This rich stew is chock full of flavour and should appeal to the whole family…whether or not you dare to tell them that the secret ingredient is coffee is, of course, entirely up to you!

Click here for the recipe

Slow Braised Brisket

Ah, slow-braised brisket – could there be a more quintessential culinary expression of Jewish motherly love?

For me, sadly, Jewish food has always been the forbidden fruit of world cuisine, but considering I grew up in a country which doesn’t recognize the state of Israel, it is hardly that surprising that my knowledge of Jewish food isn’t as intimate as I would like it to be!

Slow Braised BrisketUnfortunately, like so much in life, what little I do know about Jewish cuisine has been gleaned from that most dubious window into the world: 80s television. As a youngster, I loved nothing more than watching my weekly staple of disapproving 5th Avenue matriarchs and their well-heeled families. Aside from their wonderfully mordant sense of humour, I was always most drawn to the food they ate, marvelling at the mysterious treats they dished up at their vast family gatherings. Matzah balls, brisket, lox and latkes – to my ear they all sounded wonderfully exotic and the characters’ enthusiasm for the food was infectious. Of course, given my complete lack of exposure to all things Jewish at the time, I had no idea that these delightfully brisk people were anything other that well-to-do Americans. The fact that they (and their food) were Jewish was utterly lost on me. I simply assumed that all New Yorkers invariably had amazing apartments, a psychologist in the family and almost always wanted to marry their daughters off to “good boys” and doctors. As a child I did, however, know one thing for sure: more than anything else, I desperately wanted to know what brisket tasted like.

Some 30 years later, I am pleased to say that I have finally tasted the allusive dish and damn it, brisket is as delicious as I had imagined it would be! I was so excited the first time I made brisket, I could scarcely contain myself – 3 hours in the oven is an eternity to wait to taste a childhood dream. Meltingly tender, wholesome and served with a richly flavoured sauce, this is essentially the ultimate pot-roast, but made with a very special cut of meat.

Simple, classic and worthy of its iconic status: whether you know its Rosh Hashanah or not, a good brisket is always worth the wait! 

Click here for the recipe